Think Like The Testmaker: What Is Higher-Order Thinking?

As we’ve noted often in this space, the GMAT is a test of higher-order thinking, one of “how you think” and not “what you know.”  Even in our recent debrief of a conference hosted by the Graduate Management Admissions Council, we highlighted GMAC’s emphases on reasoning and higher-order thinking.

But that concept may be nebulous.  What constitutes higher-order thinking, and how do you know if you’re employing it?  How can one study for this lofty vision of educational greatness without knowing what it is?

The concept of higher-order thinking is a frequent conversation topic among educators in all levels.  It originates from Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, in which educational aims / desired student abilities are listed in pyramid form:

“Higher-Order Thinking” refers to the categories as they escalate the pyramid.  Note that most higher-order categories rely on the categories beneath them.  To apply a concept, one must understand it, and remembering it in the first place is a prerequisite for all of it.  Most educators agree that the top three levels — Create, Evaluate, and Analyze — comprise true “HOTS” (higher-order thinking skills), and offer other verbs that accompany those categories.  Examples include:  reorganize, explain, correlate, devise, anticipate, integrate…  Higher-order thinking, essentially, requires you to “do something” with knowledge.  Knowledge is required, but it’s the bottom of the pyramid – it’s the price of admission to show that you can use it for greater good.

Which leads to a GMAT discussion.  A great many examinees have been stymied by their performances after “reviewing flashcards every night” and “doing the Official Guide books three times each.”  But without analysis, evaluation, and creation, simply churning through those activities misses the mark of higher-order thinking, the true aim of the GMAT as an assessment tool.  Knowing algebra rules, remembering geometry formulas, etc. isn’t unhelpful, but it’s not what the test is about.

This blog series — Think Like The Testmaker — is designed to get you to think in those higher rungs of the educational ladder.  You should analyze your performance, not just do the problems.  You should create algebraic rules that you don’t remember, not just look them up.  Memorizing grammar rules is much less effective than is recognizing the logic behind them.  And it only makes sense that the GMAT does not emphasize or require the “remembering” of idioms; there’s very little room in a you-know-it-or-you-don’t concept for the assessment to test anything higher-order than remembering.

How do you study for higher-order thinking?

– Analyze the rationale behind correct answers and processes.  When a Sentence Correction problem is wrong because of “improper verb tense”, remembering may tell you to not mix past tense with present tense. But analysis shows that a sentence that says:

While fixing my neighbor’s car, I also learned how to repair a power screwdriver.

Is correct, because it tells a logical timeline (one action happened within the time period of another).  But:

While fixing my neighbor’s car tomorrow, I learned how to repair a power screwdriver.

Is incorrect.  The addition of the word “tomorrow” didn’t change the verbs at all, but it added new information to the timeline to show that the sequence of events is illogical.  Remembering verb tenses can be helpful, but analyzing the true, logical rationale behind when one is used correctly or incorrectly has lasting value in terms of higher-order thinking.

– Create new problems based on the content and structure of those you’ve seen.  You may recall your teachers having a poster in their classrooms to the extent of “you remember:  5% of what you hear; 15% of what you read; 25% of what you use….and 90% of what you teach someone else.”  (percentages may vary per poster)  The idea is that the more you’re forced to truly use the information, the more you’ve mastered it because then you have to understand it from multiple angles and you’ve been forced to analyze, apply, and create.  Creating your own questions forces you to do exactly that.  If you learn a new algebra rule or see an interesting problem, ask how you could  turn it into a new problem.  In doing so, you’ll not only have to understand the information on a new, more permanent level, you’ll also start anticipating how the GMAT may ask you questions.

– Create your own rule.  Well, not really – but “create” by proving rules to yourself rather than looking them up.  As mentioned in the article (The Unburdening of Proof) linked above, knowledge is just “stickier” and more flexible if you’ve acquired it through reasoning and logic  than it is if you’re hoping to remember something you’ve read.  Before you look it up, see if you can determine it for yourself.  That employs higher-order thinking and leads to longer-lasting knowledge.

The folks behind the GMAT are quite clear that their assessment is concerned with higher-order thinking and reasoning skills.  So think like the testmaker — hold yourself to a higher standard as you study and focus on higher-order thinking.  Knowledge may be power, but analysis, creation, and evaluation are more powerful by a much higher order.

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